searching for the elusive arepas

Each culture comes with a full sensory experience. Taste provides one of the strongest links to the culture we call home.

Each culture comes with a full sensory experience. Taste provides one of the strongest links to the culture we call home. It is hard, for example, to think of Poland without conjuring up the mental taste of pierogi or Mexico without a tortilla wrapping a well-spiced filling. The Caribbean island of Puerto Rico definitely comes with its own host of dishes to help define its culture.

Last month our Puerto Rican hosts Jorge and Ana took Eva and me on a short culinary road trip one evening. Just to the east of the island’s metropolitan centre, San Juan, lies the Pinones State Forest. The high rises and expressways of the capital city quickly give way to a tight two-lane road meandering through scrubby pine groves pushing up against miles of narrow beaches.

The agriculturally marginal sandy lands and low swampy areas of Pinones provided a haven for slaves escaping from rival colonial powers two centuries ago. The Spanish offered slaves fleeing neighbouring British, French, Danish or Dutch islands their freedom. Colonial governors happily saw this as a way to undermine the slave economies of competing sugar islands while maintaining their own system of slavery.

A rigid racial hierarchy, though, marginalized the emerging community. Their survival depended on utilizing the locally available foods. Yautia, a hearty taro-like tuber, and plantains, the starchy cousin of the banana, along with coconuts, crabs and fish, anchored the diet of the poor on the coast. Deep frying provided a then distinctively African method of preparing the ingredients.

The remnant Afro-Caribbean roots of the now very mixed Puerto Rican population cannot be denied. Jorge and Ana brought us to a strip of burens or small open-air food stalls that lined a section of the road through Pinones. Searching for good, crisp golden arepas, fried puffy rounds of flour-based dough sometimes stuffed with cheese or seafood, was our primary goal. At our first stop, while no arepas were to be found, we tried the crab stuffed alcapurrias, which are a bullet-shaped hand food about 10 centimetres long made from fried mashed yautia and plantain. The three-table stand also had bacalaitos, which we sampled. They are a pancake-like fried fritter with small pieces of cod throughout.

Further down the road we tried again to find arepas again but had to settle for a plate of pastelitos: small turnovers with a seafood stuffing. The pastelitos mark an increasing culinary influence of the Dominican Republic on Puerto Rican culture. I was told that many of the Pinones food stalls now were run by Dominicans.

With the two islands only separated by the Mona Passage, a 130-kilometre stretch of water linking the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean Sea, the opportunity to make a better living has drawn an increasing number of Dominicans to Puerto Rico. Like the escaping slaves before them, they now occupy the margins of the island’s society.

In the Dominican Republic itself, the scene is repeated with Haitians fleeing poverty for a better life on the fringes of Dominican society. Puerto Ricans, of course, have done same thing by leaving their island for opportunities on the US mainland. All these population movements have influenced their reluctant and often racist hosts.

It took us a couple of more days but we finally found our arepas in Esperanza, a town on the south coast of the small neighbouring island of Vieques. Angel Rivera, the operator of an organic market garden, La Finca Sustentable Puerto Real, brought us to El Quenepo, a restaurant which he supplies with organic salad greens. Over our great arepas, he told us how people from the US mainland were migrating to his island in search of a better life. These new immigrants had begun to influence his island’s culture.

All in all our taste buds and our societies are mixing at an unprecedented rate. Tolerance must be a main ingredient in any recipe for the emergence of a just, sustainable global society and the vibrant cultures growing along with it.

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A Llama Project presentation by the Mexican artist, Cesar Damian, titled Immigrations: An Artist’s Exploration of Human Migrations will be held on Tuesday, September 15th, 7 p.m. at L’Afy, 302 Strickland Street in Whitehorse.

YDEC’s Sustainable Community Projects Workshop: Global and Local Perspectives begins Friday, September 18th at 7 p.m. at Yukon College and runs through Saturday, September 19th. For more information call 633- 3282.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact pazypan@yukon.net.

Namaste notes

Saturday, September 12 – Steve Biko, leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, is murdered in an apartheid-era South African prison in 1977.

Sunday, September 13 – 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time. A suggested reading is Mark 8: 27-35.

Wednesday, September 16 – Lailat ul-Qadr, the Islamic Night of Destiny, marks the revelation of the first verses of Qur’an to Prophet Mohammed by the angel Gabriel. On this night, as well, the Muslim faithful believe their fate for the following year is decided.

Wednesday, September 16 -The International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer’s theme this year is “Universal participation: Ozone protection unifies the world.”